An Essay on the Principle of Population. Simple essay on population page of the original edition of 1798.
While it was not the first book on population, it was revised for over 28 years and has been acknowledged as the most influential work of its era. England, Wales and Scotland, starting in 1801 and continuing every ten years to the present. This theory suggested that growing population rates would contribute to a rising supply of labour that would inevitably lower wages. In essence, Malthus feared that continued population growth would lend itself to poverty and famine.
In 1803, Malthus published, under the same title, a heavily revised second edition of his work. His final version, the 6th edition, was published in 1826. Between 1798 and 1826 Malthus published six editions of his famous treatise, updating each edition to incorporate new material, to address criticism, and to convey changes in his own perspectives on the subject. Malthus regarded ideals of future improvement in the lot of humanity with scepticism, considering that throughout history a segment of every human population seemed relegated to poverty. Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment is so strong, that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition”. The way in which these effects are produced seems to be this.
We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease, while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great that population is at a stand.
In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land, to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage, till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened, and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated. Chapter II, p 19 in Oxford World’s Classics reprint. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands.
Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world. Malthus made the specific prediction that world population would fall below a line going upward from its then current population of one billion, adding one billion every 25 years. If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make it. To date, world population has remained below his predicted line.
However, the current rate of increase since 1955 is over two billion per 25 years, more than twice the Malthus predicted maximum rate. The highest UN projection has population continuing at this rate and surpassing the Malthus predicted line. This high projection supposes today’s growth rate is sustainable to the year 2100 and beyond. Regarding possibilities for freeing man from these limits, Malthus argued against a variety of imaginable solutions.
If the progress were really unlimited it might be increased ad infinitum, but this is so gross an absurdity that we may be quite sure that among plants, as well as among animals, there is a limit to improvement, though we do not exactly know where it is. It is probable that the gardeners who contend for flower prizes have often applied stronger dressing without success. At the same time, it would be highly presumptuous in any man to say, that he had seen the finest carnation or anemone that could ever be made to grow. In all these cases therefore, a careful distinction should be made, between an unlimited progress, and a progress where the limit is merely undefined. It does not by any means seem impossible that by an attention to breed, a certain degree of improvement, similar to that among animals, might take place among men.
As the human race, however, could not be improved in this way without condemning all the bad specimens to celibacy, it is not probable that an attention to breed should ever become general”. He went so far as to claim that moral restraint on a wide scale was the best means—indeed, the only means—of easing the poverty of the lower classes. This plan appeared consistent with virtue, economic gain and social improvement. Malthus emphasises the difference between government-supported welfare, and public charity. Relief in dire distress would come from private charity. He reasoned that poor relief acted against the longer-term interests of the poor by raising the price of commodities and undermining the independence and resilience of the peasant.
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